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Jessica Lee MP, a child law specialist in 42 BR’s family group (and currently MP for Erewash), was called to speak in the House of Commons on 10 February 2014 in support of amendments relating to children in care. Full text:
Jessica Lee (Erewash, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this important debate on this important Bill. I will start by declaring an interest as a family law barrister. Over many years, I have represented parents, guardians, grandparents, children, guardians, social workers and many other people. I have no doubt that the Bill will improve the prospects of some of the most vulnerable children in our society, in particular those who are in foster care and those who are placed for adoption.
We in this House often focus on the issues that divide us, but matters such as the prospects for looked-after children always unite the House, and efforts have been made across the parties and in the other place to progress the Bill in a positive way, and to work on the detail and reach our agreed position this evening. I remember fondly—as will many other hon. Members, I am sure—the many hours spent on the Bill Committee considering these important measures.
I wish briefly to highlight two points this evening. The first is the extremely positive development in part 5 of the Bill that makes provision for young people to remain, or, as the phrase goes, to “stay put”, in foster care until the age of 21. It is almost impossible for any of us to imagine how, in addition to all the challenges that young people face when considering their careers and their journey into adult life, some will have the added uncertainty of their whole home support network being in possible jeopardy.
Too often I have seen court cases involving older teenage children where, despite the best efforts of all those involved—the judiciary, solicitors, social work team and so on—and a care plan that is always carefully worded and constructed along with the legislation, there is always a concern that there is only so much the court can do. Previously, up to the age of 16 or 17 there was that uncertainty, and a gap in the provision of services. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister in leading on these measures. The whole House has worked extremely hard to identify those gaps and to ensure that continued provision, which is much needed for young people as they move into the adult world. The Bill will need time to be implemented, and we will also need time to evaluate and assess the success of what is being proposed. Nevertheless, I think that all involved will see tonight as a significant step forward for looked-after children.
My second point is about clause 11. The House has had the benefit of the expertise of Baroness Butler-Sloss who assisted in that section of the Bill. As the former president of the family division, she may perhaps offer more expertise than most of us when it comes to understanding how the drafting of the clause may be interpreted in the family courts. I have no doubt that the starting point for all courts when considering contact and residence applications has been, and will continue to be, that children will always benefit from a relationship with both of their parents, unless there is a good reason to move away from that.
As a family practitioner I have no doubt that contact and residence cases can be the most emotive and difficult litigation for individuals to commence. Put simply, it is to do with the relationship that people have with their own flesh and blood. In advance of such cases, those around the clients involved, such as the solicitors, not only give legal advice but often take the on role of friend and confidant as they guide the parents—or increasingly the grandparents—through such litigation. That highly emotive aspect to these cases is why the drafting of the Bill is so crucial—drafting is crucial for all legislation, but it is a particular issue with this clause.
Clause 11 is entitled, “Welfare of the child: parental involvement”. That maintains the important balance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents, but it does in some ways move away from
suggesting that there is any division in terms of time, which is different from what some of the other proposed phrases may have done. That was, of course, never the intention of using a phrase such as “shared parenting”, but I understand why a parent involved in litigation might interpret the words in such a way.
I thank all those involved, including the voluntary organisations, those in the family courts and, as I said earlier, Members from across the House and the other place who have worked extremely hard on this Bill. I commend the Minister who has done extremely well in leading on this important Bill. I for one look forward to this positive and progressive Bill being granted Royal Assent.